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Firms Push Online Billing to Save Mailing Costs

Banks, telecommunication companies and travel firms are cutting mailing costs significantly by using incentives to persuade their customers to receive billing statements online.

AT&T is partnering with Amazon, CDNow, ESPN and other companies to promote its online billing. The telecommunications firm has offered Amazon gift certificates in varying amounts for customers who want to switch, with $25 gift certificates proving to be the most popular.

“Amazon is a well-known brand and is very flexible: People can buy books to chainsaws. It's the closest thing to cash,” said Jim Davey, e-marketing vice president at AT&T.

This spring, AT&T offered an ESPN vest to those who signed up for online billing, along with other offers such as $25 gift certificates from CDNow. In a joint promotion with Women.com, those who switched to online billing were offered subscriptions to a variety of Hearst magazines.

Electronic prepaid calling cards, along with free long-distance minutes, also have been popular incentives. AT&T promotes online billing in most of its mailings, including stuffers in paper bills as well as separate direct mail pieces to its primary targets.

Online, AT&T promotes the billing service via banner ads on its sites, particularly its WorldNet Internet service provider site. “That's a very loyal group of AT&T customers. It's a very good place to market it,” Davey said.

AT&T's online billing message also is included in its partners' promotional e-mails. For example, a CDNow customer could receive a targeted e-mail offering a free CD to customers who sign up for AT&T's online billing.

Sprint has taken a more low-key marketing approach to online billing promotion after introducing the service to its business customers this March and to consumers last year. However, the firm's business division plans monthly e-mails about its online customer services, including billing, to 13,000 businesses that have registered at Sprint.com/bizservice.

Sprint's consumer division recently completed a month-long campaign with Yahoo to cross-promote Yahoo Bill Pay. A Sprint banner ad on Yahoo directed customers to Yahoo Bill Pay, where customers can pay several types of bills via Yahoo. However, Sprint customers who wanted to view an itemized bill or pay by credit card were directed to Sprint's site.

“Although we are supporting our site for billing, some people did not want to go to more than one site. In order to reach more customers, we're giving them several more options, including paying by credit card on our site and Yahoo Bill Pay,” said Patty Montague, manager for electronic bill presentment and payment at Sprint.

Sprint marketing executives also plan to repeat last year's successful consumer promotion: Those who registered received a virtual prepaid card with 60 minutes of long distance. Sprint also is exploring an online sweepstakes.

Besides the cost savings, online billing is improving relationships with customers, according to Davey. “We can communicate with these customers via e-mail on a regular basis and offer other services. We do our best to retain those customers and create a much better relationship,” he said.

However, the company only e-mails promotions to those who have opted in to receive them. “You definitely don't get AT&T marketing just if you have signed up to receive online billing,” Davey said.

AT&T's online billing also allows customers to sort their calls by date, phone number or amount, or to link to AT&T's Anywho directory to look up a number they do not recognize.

Publishers will be the next big users of online billing systems, according to Matt Blumberg, chairman/CEO of Return Path, New York.

“You will start to see online billing broaden pretty rapidly, with telecommunications, financial and travel being the top three, then publishers are next,” he said. “Distributing their renewals is a huge cost.”

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